Monday, 24 December 2007

Mini ozone holes

You might wonder why I'm down here. Well, I'm just taking the air really. It's nice air here, very fresh, and rather bracing at times. It's got to be good for you.

Down here though, we are as far from big cities as it's possible to get, and so for a few years BAS has been studying what the atmosphere is like in non-polluted areas. Last time I was here we were setting up a clean air laboratory a kilometre away from the rest of the base where it wouldn't be affected by the generators and vehicles. 6 years on, I'm back to find that it's full of machines that go whirrrrr and buzz, and measure all sorts of exciting things like OH, BrO, HOx and Nox. And ozone.

Stop right there. I know what what you're thinking. Ozone holes, CFC's all that rubbish..... well, forget it. OK, yeah, Halley is the place where they discovered the hole in the ozone layer, but I know nothing about it. It's all 20 miles above our heads. It certainly goes over my head anyway.

Ozone down here at the surface is much more interesing anyway. And it does some odd things too. Shortly after the sun comes up after the dark Antarctic winter, the concentrations go haywire. One day we'll have otherwise normal value of about 20-30 ppb, the next all the ozone will suddenly vanish. A few days later, its suddenly there again.

For a while no-one knew what caused these mini-ozone holes, but we now suspect it's bromine given off from salty ice crystals - frost flowers - that grow on the surface of new sea ice. The bromine breaks down in sunlight into individual atoms that can destroy ozone - in pretty much exactly the same way that chlorine from CFC's breaks down the ozone in the ozone layer.

That's what I reckon anyway. To be honest, no-one is really quite sure, and that's why we've had this little project funded. How big are these depletion events? How far inland do they go? Well, hopefully we're about to find out. BAS has built a set of ten little autonomous instruments for me to deploy out in the snow. I build 'em and shove 'em in the snow; next year someone else comes along, digs 'em up, and we've got as much information as we like about the extent and timing of the events.

That at least is the theory. If we get a whole year's data from all 10 instruments I'll eat my woolly hat.

On turdicles and rocket bogs

Its a dark secret never mentioned in their diaries, and never discussed at dinner tables: Polar explorers poo in the snow.

Scott did it - every few miles, a little pile of digested pemmican droppings on the way to the pole, little piles of digested donkey on the way back. For Amundsen, digested husky. Poor old Thybbles and Røver; what a way to go.

Even today, life 'in the field' for an polar scientist is little different. When the call of nature becomes too strident, one leaves the tent and grabs one's shovel, and makes jolly sure one is not pooing in the same location that one digs one's snow for water. Life is very simple.

At the remote little summer logistics station at Sky Blue where I spent a few days last year, things were a smidgeon more sophisticated. A hundred yards from the main camp, a solitary pyramid tent stood. Inside was a rough wooden plank suspended above..... the Turdicle. I'd rather not go into further details if you don't mind.

Here at Halley we mostly have proper flushing loos. Yet the technology isn't all that more evolved here, for the pipes simply lead outside, down into a tunnel, and then the pipes end at a deep, deep hole of horrors. One day, perhaps, this piece of ice will break free from the Antarctic continent, and twenty years of accumulated crap will dissolve into the Antarctic Ocean. For now though, its all safely frozen in the ice.

I say we mostly have flushing loos. The main accomodation platforms do, and the Science platforms used to as well. Only, as they were used less frequently, they had a tendency to freeze up. Now, they're been replaced with Rocket Bogs. The Rocket Bog concept is very simple. Imagine pooing in a kettle, then sellotaping the on-switch down so that all the liquid boils off and the remains catch fire, so that all you are left with is a little pile of ash. Very simple: no water pipe coming in, no sewage pipe going out. All you need is a chimney, and an electricity supply. With a big, big fuse. Oh, and of course a big diesel generator, a tonne or two of fossil fuels each year, and a supply ship to bring the fuel in.

For some reason, BAS has decided it is not environmentally friendly to poo in the snow. The new station being built here will have a sewage treatment plant that will - at immense cost in energy - process the sewage, disposing of the grey water in the same way as before, then incinerating the solids. That's all very well, but is it really more environmentally friendly? Personally, I very seriously doubt it. Of course it would be nice not to leave poo in the snow, but for goodness sake, when it is there, it ain't doing anyone any harm. One day, perhaps, the ice will reach the sea and it will be released. So what? The Southern Ocean is big, and the bugs will probably be delighted to have something tasty to munch on.

CO2 emissions, on the other hand, are bad. Very bad. And we ought to know: BAS's own research into climate change shows just how dangerous mucking around with the atmosphere really is. So why doesn't BAS do something about its own emissions? The construction of the new station here, with the phenomenal logistics effort required, will release more than 10000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Even when it is running, operating emissions are expected to be higher than those of the current base - despite the projected population of the base being smaller. I reckon that is shameful.

There is another research base being built in Antarctica this year, by the Belgians. It will be powered entirely by renewable energy, despite being put together on a budget a fraction of that of Halley VI. What's more, because melting snow for water is also a very energy-intensive process, their sewage plant will filter and reprocess all the liquid that goes down - and, nice and clean, it will go back into the taps to be used again. What they will do with the solids, they don't say. Given how much thought has gone into the rest of the project though, I doubt they burn it. Perhaps they plan to compost it and grow tomatoes? Mmmm... Now that really would be a good thing. We don't get much fresh food down here.

If they can't do it, why can't we? Come on BAS. Time to get your shit together.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Flying fossils

The plane I came here on was designed before I was born. It's an elderly, lumbering beast, and it takes a lot of fossil fuel to fuel a fossil: about a gallon of kerosene every second. 3600 gallons every hour for a 12 hour flight. Nearly 40000 gallons. It does admittedly carry a fair number of passengers, so my share of the carbon shame amounts to around 80 gallons.

That was just the 747 that carried us from Heathrow to Cape Town. To carry on South to the Antarctic continent itself we sat quaking in the bowels of a monstrous Ilyushin IL-76. The Ilyushin 76 is a design just as old as the jumbo, but must be way less efficient still. It's a bit smaller, so perhaps it only burns half as much fuel as the 747 did. Lets say 2000 gallons an hour for 6 hours. 12000 gallons between the 50 passengers; 240 gallons for my share.

I completed my journey to Halley in a DC-3. Remember the Douglas DC-3? The Dakota? Probably only from old black and white films. It's an aircraft that first flew in 1935, and huge numbers saw service in the second world war. This one has been enitrely rebuilt and re-engined (and stretched by 3 feet for good measure), but essentially it's still the same plane as when it left the Douglas factory sometime in the 1940's. It's an antique.

We filled the DC-3's tanks before we left the Russian base at Novo, we topped them up on the way at the Norwegian base, Troll, and we filled them again at Halley so the plane could return home. In all, about another 30 drums of fuel were burnt to carry the 10 of us along our final part of the journey. My portion: another 120 gallons of fuel. All disappearing in a puff of CO2 in the name of climate science.

Now, I do have some strong opinions about whether BAS should take its carbon emmisions into account when planning its operations, which no doubt I will air at some point. But for now, what I'm wondering is this: Do planes really have to burn so much fuel? The DC-3 belongs to the era of the steam train, and the 747 and Ilysushin-76 aren't much more modern. Why haven't planes evolved like trains and cars have? Sure, a few people drive around in cars built in the 1940's - but only for fun. No one would dream of using a 70-year-old car design commercially - so why planes?

It's not that technically it's terribly hard to build a plane that uses less fuel. The new Airbus drinks 1/3 less kerosene per passenger mile than a 747, largely by improved aerodynamics and by using modern materials to save weight without compromising stiffness or strength. But manufacturers don't put that much effort into producing efficient planes, and operators don't bother to buy them if they do, because aviation fuel is so cheap that there is little incentive to do so.

Surely it's time to grow up and slap an enormous tax on aviation fuel. Flying in pterodactyls may be fun, but it's not worth trading it for the earth.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Diary: Flying South

26th November
Run around like a headless chicken packing. Cycle up to BAS with big rucksack. Stephane - who has been building my ozone monitors - guiltily stops soldering and tries to cram some more circuit boards into my luggage. Not enough room. I take out several warm jerseys and stuff a few GPS aerials, tools and manuals into my rucksack. Still not enough room. Take a few more clothes out - who needs them anyway - and with zips and buckles creaking under the strain finally get all the essentials in. Jump on a bus for Heathrow, pay a whopping excess baggage charge, and board a jumbo for Cape Town.

Pleasant hotel in centre of Cape Town. Stuffing myself, running around Table Mountain to work up an appetite, stuffing myself, etc.

We return to the airport at midnight. We've been instructed to wear Antarctic clothing for the flight, so we're sweating profusely, clumping around in massive boots and great big padded orange overalls. The departure lounge looks like a set for 'Teletubbies go to Guantanamo'.

The aircraft is an Ilyushin 76. Its huge. Its Soviet military technology, and its scary. The interior appears to be patched together from scrap plywood. There are big gaps along the seams, and the panels are held together with a random assortment of screws and rivets. Quite a few fixings are missing. You wonder if the outside is in the same state of repair, but there are no windows so you can't look out. The interior is big enough to hold a couple of tanks, but we've just got a pile of luggage in the back end, two portaloos tied down with cargo straps, fifty seats holding fifty quaking Gnarly Antarctic Heroes, and a bunch of flags to make it look a bit more cheery.

The plane lurches across the Southern Ocean and sags in relief onto an ice runway at a Russian base in Dronning Maud Land. We sit in a tent for a couple of hours and drink tea and eat breakfast.

Sitting on a sledge we are taken in style back to the runway, passing the not-so-reassuring remains of a little plane lying upside down in a snowdrift with a wing broken off. We board a DC-3 for Halley. Yes, it really is a DC-3 - they were invented in the 1930s. I guess if it has lasted this long it might manage one last wheezy flight.

It makes it to Halley - hurrah. And 'cos of the time zones, we're just in time for breakfast again!

To be continued.

South again

Hello - it's taken me a while to get round to it, but seeing as I've found myself back in the snowy wastes of the Brunt Ice Shelf, and can't be bothered keeping in touch with everyone individually, here's my latest blog.

I'm back at Halley, where I saw in the Millenium. No, that's not quite true. I'm back at Halley, but I'm a couple of miles from where I saw in the Millenium. Halley is moving slowly to the West, and we wake up in the mornings with our feet at the longitude our heads were occupying when we drifted off. That's the trouble with building a reasearch base on a floating ice shelf - it doesn't stay still. Not that it makes much difference to everyday life here, but every so often a bit of the ice shelf breaks off and floats away. One day, the bit that Halley is on will break off too.

We might have another 10 years before it goes. Or we might have 1 year. It could even break off tomorrow. Or perhaps it broke off yesterday and none of us have noticed yet? I'm looking out the window but it's rather hard to tell. Are we attached to the rest of the continent still or are we floating around on a giant iceberg?

It probably hasn't happened yet, but one day it will. That's why the powers that be have decided it's time for a new Halley. Halley VI (yes, we have got through 5 already) will be bigger and better than any previous incarnation, and more importantly built a few miles further to the East. And this one won't just be built on jackable legs, like the current Halley, which prevents it being buried alive (which was the fate suffered by Halley's I to IV). Halley VI will have legs with skies on them so they can tow the base to safety next time the edge of the ice shelf gets alarmingly close. I imagine Halley VII will have wings as well. Halley VIII will have.... well there probably won't be any ice left to build a Halley VIII on, we'll have melted it all by then.

But back to the present. They are starting to build Halley VI this year. As I write, two ships are steaming here laden with steelwork, plenty of insulation, and a motley gang of builders on special cold-allowance and overtime rates. It's quite an expensive business building a new research base, and if you don't get your sums right at the beginning - and BAS didn't - it costs more than you bargained for. £38 million at the last count. That's a lot of money. It has to come from somewhere, and it would be nice to pretend it was purelt for scientific research that the Government has coughed up all the money, but of course they are really doing it because this is the Edge of the Empire; British Antarctic Territory; the last little bit coloured pink on the maps that adorn the walls of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We have to maintain our Presence, and if we spend more more money on building here than the Chileans and Argentinians do, we might have more claim to this slice of the Antarctic pie. Their maps aren't coloured pink you see, they reckon this part of the world belongs to them.

BAS has had to tighten its belt though. In order to cut costs, they've decided to abolish science down here. Just for a year or two. No, of course I jest, we haven't abolished science down here. This is a research base, silly, and what would be the point of a research base without researchers? We've just trimmed it a little, from the eight scientists who were here last winter, to, ummm, one for next winter. But it's OK - to make sure he's able to work efficiently he'll have a chef to boil his egg in the morning and tuck a napkin under his chin, a couple of mechanics and maintenance men to keep his skidoo running and the lights burning through the long dark winter, a doctor to cut his toenails and mop his fevered brow and a base commander to keep them all in order.

Do I sound cynical? Heaven forbid. At least we're still allowed to do a little more science in the summer. And that's what I meant to be doing; measuring ozone or something of that sort.

It's a weighty responsibility. Will I ever get my temperamental machines to work? Will I crack under the pressure?

What will the ozone tell us anyway? Are we all doomed?

Stay tuned. I'll keep you informed.